Our visit to the Ofer Military Court was the most heartbreaking experience of the whole of the trip. I thought I was reasonably knowledgeable about Israeli military law for the Palestinians living in Area C of the West Bank, but I had not imagined just how intentionally abusive it is and that the reality is indeed a form of State Terrorism.
The day was facilitated by Gerard Horton and Salwa Duaibis of Military Court Watch (http://www.militarycourtwatch.org/)
Gerard is the founder of Military Court Watch. Previously he was a lawyer at Defence for Children International (DCI), which is an international organization working in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel in the field of promoting and defending the rights of children. Gerard has worked in the region for five years with a focus on Palestinian children detained and prosecuted in Israeli military courts.
MCW’s work is guided by a basic principle that children detained by the Israeli military authorities are entitled to all the rights and protections guaranteed under international law. Further, and in accordance with the principle that no State is permitted to discriminate between those over whom it exercises penal jurisdiction, there is no legal justification for treating Palestinian and Israeli children differently under Israel’s military and civilian legal systems. In accordance with these principles, MCW advocates, and where appropriate, litigates, to ensure that all children that come in contact with the military legal system are treated with equality and in accordance with the law.
Salwa is the head of the international advocacy programme at Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling. WCLAC aims to address the causes and consequences of gender-based violence within the Palestinian community as well as the gender-specific effects of human rights violations arising from prolonged occupation. WCLAC acts not only to reverse negative cultural legacies and discriminatory social attitudes towards Palestinian women, but also to address the needs of women who are victims of Israel’s actions in Palestine.
We started the day with a breakfast meeting. It was a talk on Israeli military law and tactics in the West Bank. We then traveled to the Ofer Military courts which are next to the Ofer prison, both situated very close to Ramallah. Thousands of Palestinians go on trial every year in this and other Israeli courts for offenses like illegally entering Israel or throwing stones and even for civil offenses such as speeding. All fines help fund the occupation.
The primary purpose of the military in the West Bank is to protect the 380,000 Israeli settlers living there. It is difficult to protect such a huge number of civilians in an occupied territory that contains 2.7 million Palestinians. Between 2012 and 2014 there were just 7 settler deaths, which is a major achievement.
The way that the settlers are protected is through the intimidation and control of the Palestinians. Every and any act of resistance has to be punished and the settlers must not be allowed to take control. The Israeli military make certain assumptions about the Palestinians. They assume that males between the ages of 10 and 30 living in villages close to Israeli settlements are the most likely to cause trouble. Every village has an Israeli intelligence officer attached to it who knows everything about everyone in the village and has informants. Children are often arrested and interrogated to get the names of those they can threaten or induce to become such informants. Such threats can include the removal of work permits and even the rape of family members.
Raids on villages are planned at night so that the village cannot be mobilized for resistance or stone throwing as well as to intentionally terrify. There is often friction where Israeli settlements are built right up to Palestinian villages and so these are the most targeted villages. One village near Ramallah was raided 16 times in one month resulting in only 2 arrests. When arrests are made it is usual for the army to take the door of the house off its hinges and to go in making a loud noise in order to terrify even the youngest children in the house. They will then drag the person (often as young as 14 0r 16) they want out of the house blindfolded and with wrists tied tightly with plastic ties. Neither the family nor the person arrested will be told what the charge is or where they are being taken. Sometimes the family is told that the person will be returned in a few hours to keep them quiet, but that is a lie.
There is no documentation and anything written is in Hebrew. The prisoner is thrown into the back of a military vehicle and taken to a settlement police unit. As this does not open until 8am prisoners are often left outside whatever the weather and with no food, water or toilet facilities until the morning. Sometimes they are held in shipping containers. Should they fall asleep they are slapped awake in order to ensure sleep deprivation before interrogation. They are then interrogated without any legal representation and not informed of their rights.
During the interrogation, general accusations may be made such as that they threw a stone a year ago. Sometimes the interrogators yell at the prisoner and make threats. It is common for the men/boys to confess to anything at this point and sign a confession that is written in Hebrew so they have no idea what they are signing. 2 days later they may attend a military court and see a lawyer for the first time. The conviction rate in the courts is 99.74%. Most court appearances are more about plea bargaining than innocence or guilt. The convicted are then shipped into prisons in Israel which is a violation of the 4th Geneva Convention. Under International Law both the courts and prisons have to be in the occupied territory and the process must be translated into the native language. Efra prison and court are the only ones that comply with this requirement to any extent. It is just about in what is left of the West Bank and does translate the proceedings for the accused although often very badly.
Israel behaves as it does in order to terrify so much and to create so much distrust that the young Palestinian men will be too afraid to even leave their homes and have no idea whom they can trust. The night raids ensure that children learn that their parents cannot protect them and the parents learn that they cannot protect their children. The children see their parents mistreated and humiliated and their parents lose respect for themselves. Every certainly is also dismantled. If children are taught that they will be safe if they behave and do not throw stones, the military will arrest them anyway so that they have no logic they can hold onto. The night raids are done randomly so that the parents and children dare not sleep and can get no rest. The children often drop out of school and no longer trust their friends as they do not know if their friends have betrayed them. They become feral.
Sometimes the Israeli military take innocent men away for short periods and then return them with smiles to make the rest of the village believe they are collaborators.
Children under the age of 12 cannot legally be arrested and placed in detention, but can still be held legally. Israel avoids their being included in the statistics by timing their detention carefully.
Every settlement is therefore at the centre of multiple human rights abuses. When we hear about new settlement building and all the land stolen from the Palestinians, it is much much more than that.
Ofer court consist of lots of cages and wired cattle runs where families wait to glimpse their relations with little shelter. There are turnstiles, huge security and the courts themselves are a series of permanent portacabins. While at the court we sat in on a number of cases and spoke to some of the parents. The men and children are brought into court with leg shackles and handcuffs. It is often the first and only time that they see their parents, often after 3 weeks of solitary confinement. In fact almost every prisoner we saw that day had suffered varying lengths of solitary confinement with 24 hour artificial light and nothing to do and only their interrogators to relieve the tedium. More often than not the cases are adjourned again and again, charges are added to and the accused have little idea of what the next charge will be or what evidence there is against them, if any. On top of all that, sometimes secret evidence is used against them so they have no chance to defend themselves.
We spoke to families outside the courtrooms: One mother told us that they came to arrest her 20 year old son at 2 am. There were children in the house aged from 8 to 25. They did not know where he had been taken for 20 days. The fourth court hearing was their only opportunity to even see their son from a distance. This hearing was adjourned like the others. Their son had been accused of throwing stones, taken to Jerusalem and left in solitary confinement. Every time the case was adjourned a new charge was added.
A young man who had been freed on the Gilad Shalit exchange in 2011, was rearrested for phoning his family in Gaza. In fact most of them have been rearrested for similar ‘offences’.
Another case involved a 19 year old man who was taken from his home at 3am and beaten very badly. He had been in solitary confinement for a month and as the case was adjourned he was being sent back to solitary confinement. Both his grandfather and mother were in tears. Another was heard to ask his parents from across the court to pray for him. Another had already been held for 18 months and the case was adjourned because the prosecution was not ready! Bail is very rare and fines are often huge and beyond the means of the family. Yet another had 40 soldiers in their home at 3am with some masked. The mother told us that her 10 year old daughter had gone berserk and has been terrified by it, while she is left with chronic headaches that nothing relieves. Another child has continuing fainting attacks. School children are often targeted, especially at exam time so that they miss important exams and give up education or are humiliated by having to sit the year again.
We were told by the families that post-traumatic stress, PTS, is very common and that the military keep on threatening to rearrest boys and young men, which damages them psychologically and makes some mentally unstable.
There is so much that I have left out of this account and I find myself in tears as I relate all this. But this is already long and detailed enough.
14-year-old Palestinian girl released from prison after 44 days, http://972mag.com/photos-14-year-old-palestinian-girl-released-from-prison-after-44-days/102646/ 13/2/2105
The following article from Ha’aretz (20/2/15), includes details of the treatment of this 14 year old and is additional confirmation of the accusations above http://www.haaretz.com/weekend/twilight-zone/.premium-1.643245?utm_source=Facebook&utm_campaign=Echobox&utm_medium=Social ‘But the serious questions remained unanswered. In addition to the fact that a girl of her age was thrown into prison, Malak was questioned without the presence of either her parents or her lawyer – even though that is obligatory under such circumstances for Israeli children – and she was compelled, she says, to sign documents in Hebrew whose content she did not understand. In fact, she signed a confession, on the basis of which she was convicted and sentenced to two months in prison in a plea bargain.’
We then went to the PLO in Ramallah where we met Hanan Ashwari.
She told us that Ramallah is surrounded by settlements and is therefore unable to expand. “What is left to build a viable Palestinian State except Bantustans or townships?” She described the occupation as ruthless and cruel; a man-made conflict that is not a religious one. Now is the time, she said, if there is to be a two-state solution at all. The recognition of Israel was already a huge sacrifice which leaves Palestine with only 22% of its land, now even that is disappearing. “We are fighting an Islamic State, why would we want to accept a Jewish one?” She said they were ‘negotiated out’ and that the US has a strategic alliance with Israel.
The PLO leadership is losing credibility with its people. They protect Israelis, but not their own people. They are fed up with having the Palestinian cause hijacked by Islamic fundamentalism and the Paris terrorists. What they want is pluralism and peace. Palestine is a male dominated patriarchal society with the PLO as an old man’s club. “Women make more of a difference then men”. The occupation feeds a culture of violence which leads to domestic violence. She is fed up with being the token woman and it puts a huge strain on her to be Super Woman!
Although Hanan does not like what Hamas stands for, she accepts that they need to be part of the government – to become a gradual part of the PLO. A dialogue is needed with Israel that recognises the inequality, not one that pretends to treat them like equals without recognition of the reality.
Then finally, after a flat tyre and bad traffic we went to the home of Samia with her best friend Cedar (of Sabeel – http://www.sabeel.org/index.php), both Palestinian Christians with Israeli IDs, and heard their sad stories of dispossession and the difficulties of living even as Christians in Israel.
Cedar Duaybis and Samia Khoury were two of the founders of Sabeel. They played a leading role in the organization and their lives reflect the virtue of ‘summud’, steadfast persistence.
Samia Nasir Khoury retired in 2003 after serving for 17 years as president of Rawdat El-Zuhur, a coeducational elementary school for the lower income community in East Jerusalem. She continues to serve as treasurer of the board of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in East Jerusalem and on the board of trustees of Birzeit University in Birzeit, Palestine.
Cedar was born in Haifa, raised Episcopalian, and schooled by British missionaries. Her mother, though Palestinian, was very British in her outlook. In 1948, the British left and Cedar, with only her mother and father from her family, fled to Nazareth where they lived in a refugee camp under military rule for over 15 years. She is still unable to visit the house and church her parents and grandparents helped build. They lost their possessions, and their faith. British religious education insisted that Israel was their ancestor and spiritual ally living under the promise of freedom from slavery. Suddenly, Jewish Zionists invaded their land and Israel enacted racist laws, confiscated their land, and harassed them to leave.
Cedar reads the Bible through Palestinian eyes now—not through the eyes of imperialism be it British or otherwise.
Sabeel is an ecumenical grassroots liberation theology movement among Palestinian Christians. Inspired by the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, this liberation theology seeks to deepen the faith of Palestinian Christians, to promote unity among them and lead them to act for justice and peace. Sabeel strives to develop a spirituality based on love, justice, peace, nonviolence, liberation and reconciliation for the different national and faith communities. The word “Sabeel” is Arabic for ‘the way‘ and also a ‘channel‘ or ‘spring‘ of life-giving water.
Sabeel also works to promote a more accurate international awareness regarding the identity, presence and witness of Palestinian Christians as well as their contemporary concerns. It encourages individuals and groups from around the world to work for a just, comprehensive and enduring peace informed by truth and empowered by prayer and action.